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BATTLEFIELD: AFRICA

Wagner Group leads Russia’s African front in cold war with the West

Wagner Group leads Russia’s African front in cold war with the West
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group. (Photo: EPA / Sergei Ilnitsky / Pool)

As men are being slaughtered on all sides in a grinding war of attrition for the control of destroyed Ukrainian cities, the new Cold War between Russia and the West is being played out on another front — Africa.

On 7 December 2022, a 12-member delegation from Burkina Faso led by Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla embarked on a highly secretive trip to Moscow.

Only after questions were raised about the absence of so many of its top officials from Ouagadougou did the government put out a statement saying that the prime minister had flown to Moscow “on a private visit”. No mention was made of the four high-ranking military officers, four ministers and three civil servants who accompanied him on this “private” visit — nor what had sent them on such a weighty mission.

The delegation transited through the capital of Mali, Bamako, and was accompanied to Moscow via Istanbul by officers from Mali, a military regime that has moved firmly into the Russian camp.

The major reason for the visit was to request weapons and training to counter the jihadi extremists linked to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda who have intensified their insurgency.

Failure to contain the insurgency led to the overthrow of the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, by the military a year ago and then to a second coup, on September 30, in which Captain Ibrahim Traoré seized power.

The 64,000 rouble question is whether during the visit they signed up the Wagner mercenaries who have taken up residence in neighbouring Mali where they have been responsible for atrocities against the civilian population.

Like Mali, Burkina Faso has lucrative mining operations and therefore would present a commercial as well as a geopolitical prize for Wagner.

Some members of the delegation met with Wagner officials in Moscow, but there has been no word as to whether Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “private” army would be finding its way to a new battlefront.

Ghana’s President Nana Akufo Addo claimed that Burkina Faso had reached an agreement with Wagner to deploy there in exchange for a gold mine in the country’s south. The vociferousness with which Ouagadougou denied the assertion shows — at the very least — that it is a touchy subject.

The Burkinabes might also be wary about Wagner’s track record in the Central African Republic and Mali, and what they might be letting themselves in for.

It certainly appears likely that the support requested from Russia instructors, light weapons, armoured personnel carriers, ammunition, artillery, trucks and maintenance vehicles — could be used to equip the vigilante militia force of up to 50,000 that the Burkinabe junta is preparing to fight the jihadis alongside the military.

Fears of ethnic civil war

Human rights groups fear that the targeting of certain groups suspected by the militias of working with the jihadis could precipitate an ethnic civil war. 

Pro-government militia members killed 28 Fulani civilians, including children, in the town of Nouna in the west of the country late last year, according to Daouda Diallo, executive secretary of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities.

It is not hard to understand why the Burkinabe authorities are looking to Moscow or implementing such desperate measures. Western diplomats estimate that the jihadis have killed 2,000 Burkinabe soldiers and more than 10,000 civilians in just two years of fighting.

In fact, the weapons requested were not very different from those the previous regime demanded from France. Paris dragged its heels on the request, one of the causes of the coup.

What it has done is drive another stake into the heart of France’s neocolonial empire. Before he was overthrown in 2014, Burkina’s long-term president, Blaise Compaoré, was France’s most important security partner in the Sahel.

President Traoré, challenged on why he had opened a dialogue with the Russians, shrugged his shoulders and asked: “You guys got an alternative?”

Congo Brazzaville: ‘Crawling out of the woodwork’

Wagner Group has meanwhile been scouting for other opportunities to expand its footprint in Africa and has opened a dialogue with President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the oil-producing nation of Congo Brazzaville.

Congo-B is a tempting target. Its main port, Pointe-Noire, faces the Gulf of Guinea and is not that far from the deep-sea operations of Nigeria, surely the biggest hydrocarbon target in Africa.

Prigozhin’s approaches to Sassou Nguesso finally prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to invite Sassou to a reception — albeit not a particularly big one — in Paris in late December.

No one knows if it will be enough to keep Wagner out. For now, Sassou’s plans to bring Wagner to Pointe-Noire appear to be on hold.

A French contact said that Macron, who does not usually care too much about Africa, has become worried “because the Russians are crawling out of the woodwork everywhere”. So much so that the president has set up a discreet group to study the Wagnerisation of former French Africa.

Bringing it all back home

At least in the minds of the Russian leadership, the war with the West has been expanded into Africa with some success — especially their project to dismantle Françafrique.

At the same time, Wagner is bringing the spoils of Africa back to Russia.

Wagner’s Africa hands were said to be aghast to see the proceeds from their African enterprises going into constructing a massive skyscraper in St Petersburg that now serves as Wagner’s corporate headquarters.

More than 1,000 Wagner veterans from the Central African Republic have been pulled back to Russia, where they are likely to be used in the new offensive in Ukraine.

Having installed their puppet Faustin-Archange Touadéra as President for Life, Wagner’s empire in the CAR is now augmented by an army of locals they have trained up. The big question is whether some of them will provide a new source of manpower for the Ukrainian meat grinder.

The exact extent of African troops in Ukraine is not known. Only one casualty — the Zambian student Lemekhani Nyirenda, who was killed in action in Ukraine in September has been publicly announced. Other than that, Prigozhin was recently shown on social media talking to Malian troops in Ukraine.

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If Wagner is a scary prospect in Africa, it is also terrifying to some in Russia. Prigozhin was once extremely coy about his foundational role in Wagner, claiming that he was only a cook. Now he can’t keep his mouth shut or stay off social media.

As part of his publicity blitz, in early January Prigozhin accompanied ex-convicts to the Southern Krasnodar region as they returned from the front having earned their freedom after surviving six months of combat. Some of them had limbs missing. He gave a speech for the cameras: Don’t booze, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women and don’t kill your neighbours.

Prigozhin himself served nine years in prison for robbery so his sage words of advice carry some weight.

The survivors he congratulated are indeed the lucky ones. Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of Gulugu.net, a human rights NGO that campaigns against corruption and torture in Russia, estimates that the survival rate of Wagner’s ex-cons in Ukraine is about 15 to 20%.

Julia Ioffe, writing in Puck, quotes sources in Russia as saying that the Russian prison population has shrunk by 23,000 since Wagner started its recruitment drive.

Wagner’s troops have been repurposed into a human battering ram that has been used to bludgeon the Ukrainian cities of Soledar and Bakhmut, scenes of some of the fiercest fighting of the past month. Soledar reportedly fell to Wagner on Wednesday, though Ukrainians are still not admitting defeat.

While the prize of a shattered city might seem quite pointless on one level, Wagner has shown the world that the Russians are still in the fight, even if it takes countless casualties to prove the point.

There has even been speculation that if there is to be a coup against Vladimir Putin, only one man is believed to have the personal army and standing in right-wing nationalist circles to pull it off. And the veterans from the CAR now back in Moscow know a thing or two about installing Presidents for Life. DM

Phillip van Niekerk is the editorial director of Scrolla.Africa

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    The question is, why is it taking so long for the ICC to issue an arrest warrant to Prigozhin for crimes against humanity.

  • John Smythe says:

    Putin seems to have done a deal with the devil. If Wagner is doing all the fighting that gains ground in Ukraine (and other countries), then surely Prigozhin ultimately holds more sway than Putin. Because if Wagner pulls out of the war in Ukraine (for whatever reason), then how long is Putin going to last?
    I still wonder if Putin was thinking at all when he initiated this war. Did he consider all the nuances? Because I can’t even see an ostensibly light-weight Wagner depending on apparent backward and at least outdated Russian tech being able to hold back Western military might. Or am I wrong?

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